Hazardous materials classification: how accuracy keeps us safe

Getting a handle on hazardous materials classification and defining dangerous goods.

by Diletta Managò

In terms of dealing with dangerous goods, safety starts with accurate hazardous materials classification. Getting it wrong can mean greater risk to those around them. But with categories and classes varying across regions (not to mention according to different phases of interaction), where should a business start in its pursuit of precision? From what characteristics to keep in mind to ways to categorize a substance, we share the essentials of what to know about classifying hazardous materials.

What’s the difference between dangerous goods, hazardous materials, and chemicals?

The answer depends on how you look at them (and how you’re interacting with them). Generally speaking, dangerous goods are commonly recognized as substances or articles capable of posing reasonable harm to the environment, human health, or property. Those goods that present potential danger even when not being transporting are hazardous materials, often referred to as “hazmat.” Further down the lifecycle, any potentially harmful substances being disposed of are more commonly referred to as “hazardous waste.”

Because of their potential risks, many chemicals are considered hazardous materials. However, the definition of hazmat or dangerous goods goes beyond pure chemicals (as in chemical substances or in mixtures), encompassing articles as well (e.g., batteries).

Aligning across borders: The (only) conventional system for hazardous materials classification

Unfortunately for multi-national businesses, there isn’t one global, cookie-cutter version of classification. Depending on where your company operates, your EHS teams could be dealing with a complex matrix of regulations and systems for hazardous materials. Even within one region, make sure to check with your federal, state, and local authorities to align with all requirements. However, among those, you’ll find that there is some region-to-region cross-over when it comes to chemicals.

The most widely adopted system related to hazardous material classification is for chemicals: UN Globally Harmonised System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS). In 2003, the United Nations (UN) provided this uniform system to harmonize the criteria for the classification of chemicals (chemical substances and mixtures) by the type of hazard that they constitute. This system defines 3 classes of hazards presented by chemical materials: health hazards, physical hazards, and environmental hazards. The GHS is continually being revised and countries across the world may follow different versions of the updates.

Defining danger by what you do: Different categories in hazardous materials classification

Adding even more complexity to managing hazardous materials, many classifications and regulations are specific to the type of interaction with the substances (e.g., transport vs disposal). In short, this means what your company is going to do with the substances more precisely defines their perceived level of potential harm – and the rules you need to follow. These categories directly relate to a wide range of details, including production processes, types of transportation, and quantities handled.

One internationally recognized approach to hazardous materials classification is specific to transportation. While presented differently in different regions, its same classes are reflected across several countries – and are crucial for your multi-national EHS team to be aware of. Organizing hazardous materials into 9 classes, including explosives, gases, flammable materials, and corrosives, we see this same list in guidance around the world. The UN outlines these classes both in its Recommendations on the Transport of Dangerous Goods as well as its Agreement concerning the International Carriage of Dangerous Goods by Road (ADR). Requirements in the US mirror these categories in its hazardous materials classification.

Hazardous materials classification can help keep our world safe

As the use of hazardous materials expands in multiple sectors, so does their potential harm to human lives and our collective community. If your company interacts in any way with these substances and/or articles, it’s important to know your essential role in mitigating their danger. Safely managing them starts with correctly classifying them. To protect your teams and the public, make sure to stay up to date on the changing classes in your operating jurisdictions as well as transportation requirements when crossing borders.

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